#BlackLivesMatter, also in the signed language interpreting profession.

Aurélia Nana Gassa Gonga

The second guest blog (English)/ vlog (French Sign Language – LSF) on this platform is by Aurélia Nana Gassa Gonga (France/ The Netherlands).
As a French Sign Language (LSF)/French interpreter since 2012, she wants to share her experience of being a black woman in a profession predominantly composed of white female players. This contribution is a response to a previous post on this website about #BlackLivesMatter.

Aurélia is a qualified French/LSF interpreter since 2012. She is is an active member of the French association of Sign Language interpreters (AFILS) and works for a better recognition of the profession in France and abroad.
As a junior researcher, she was part of the French team “Signed Languages and Gesture” at the University Paris 8 and CNRS and undertook research about deaf translation. In 2018, she became a PhD candidate at Radboud University (Nijmegen, The Netherlands) on a project about international sign used by deaf and hearing interpreters. Her research is part of a larger project called “Deaf communication without a shared language”.
Aurélia disseminates her research through scientific publications and science popularisation on her Youtube channel “La Tête Froide”. She is on Twitter as @latetefroide.

Aurélia NGG – Langue des Signes Française #BlackLivesMatter also in the SLI profession.

Who am I?

I was born in France, I have studied LSF interpretation in France and I have worked as a LSF/French interpreter in France. Both of my parents were born in Cameroon and have moved to France in their mid-twenties. I am black, I am French and I feel French. This does not exclude the fact that I still feel connected to my country of origin as members of my family still live there.
The path to become a professional LSF/French interpreter has not been an easy one, nor a hard one. As long as I remember, it has been work, simply. I come from a middle-class family and I had to work in parallel during my 5-year-college journey. So did many of my white peers. Plus, I got a student benefit from the French government to support me financially during my studies. So did many of my white peers. I am thankful for this benefit and for my former employers.

Racism and the SL interpreting profession?

The first time I was confronted with myself as a black signed language interpreter was in 2017 at the Gallaudet University Symposium on SL interpreting. This was the perfect occasion to meet many American signed language interpreters and better understand the situation of the deaf communities in the US, after having read a lot about it during my studies.
I was shocked to discover that there are two SL interpreting associations in the US: the Register of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the National Alliance of Black Interpreters. There is also the association Mano a Mano, an organization of trilingual (Spanish-English-ASL) interpreters and, as its name indicates, brings together interpreters based on their working languages and not on the colour of their skin or origin. 
To be more precise, the RID is the official association for American SL interpreters and in order to be recognized as an ASL interpreter, you need to register with the RID. However,  due to division, unequal services and access for black interpreters, the National Alliance of Black Interpreters was founded in 1999. 
In France, we have only one national SL interpreters’ association (AFILS) whose members are mainly white and female. However, as a black woman, I do not feel excluded. Moreover, I am the secretary within the board.

What justifies a black SL interpreting association in the US?

So there I was, in the US, not being a SL interpreter, nor a French SL interpreter but a black SL interpreter. Whoa, now I feel excluded. I entered the discussion on why the separation came about in the US with my black ASL colleagues and learned that there were three main reasons for this separation. There might be more, but these are the ones that struck me the most.

First, the US country is shaped around ethnic communities. As a consequence, black deaf people may use different signs than white deaf people and the Black deaf culture is perceived as different in ASL communities (one reason being that black deaf children may have attended different schools than deaf white kids because of the segregation policies following the Civil War). White people who are not part of the black community do not have naturally access to this community. In France, to my knowledge, we haven’t been through a segregationist system so LSF is mainly similar among people regardless of their colour.

Secondly, black deaf people usually express the need to identify with their black interpreter. In France, I have had the experience of being  personally asked to interpret a situation because I am a female interpreter but never because I am a black interpreter. However, I remember assignments with deaf black people who would react happy and surprised to see a black interpreter coming in.
These two reasons make sense to me as applying them, serves the community we work with and aims to improve the quality of the interpretation and the communicative interaction. However, I wish this sociolinguistic need could have been addressed by a dedicated working group within one single SL interpreters’ association instead of having two separate American SL interpreters’ organizations. However, writing this blog post, I took time to discuss this topic with one black ASL interpreter and asked for an update on the situation. She informed me that membership sections have been created within RID to focus on underrepresented populations, including interpreters/translators of colour.

Anyway, the third and last reason that was provided to me in 2017, saddened me. I got this explanation through a testimony from a black colleague. This black ASL interpreter shares an office with white colleagues and each time the white colleagues wanted to talk about a black deaf person, they would sign “black” instead of saying “black”. This feels really weird and uncomfortable for the black interpreter present in the room. Why don’t the white colleagues simply say the word “black”? Is this a bad word? Is it less harsh signing “black” than saying “black” during a conversation where you were talking all the while? So, the third reason for having separate associations is not sociolinguistically rooted like the two other reasons but is rather… Well, I don’t know what word to use. Racist-based? One thing is sure, it is not linked to trying to improve the quality of the interpretation. Here’s my point, black SL interpreters may feel uncomfortable and excluded by their white colleagues.

This last reason resonates with me. In France, some people tend to use “black” instead of “noir” – this might imply that French people are more comfortable using English than French to talk about this – as if “noir” is a bad word. I don’t really feel offended by this depending on the way this is communicated. When for instance the white person is saying something, then pauses as if something special/hard/weird/difficult/I-don’t-know? is happening, and says after that pause “black”, I do feel offended. I don’t understand this pause before the word “black” and the use of “black” instead of “noir”. Depending on the situation, I let it go or I confront the person.
However, and fortunately, I do not associate this particular situations with the SL interpreting profession, but with society in general. Moreover, within the SL interpreting profession in France and abroad (efsli, WASLI for instance), I always felt comfortable and welcome. As an academic, I cannot say the same. But this is another story.

So, what’s next?

Back to France. Do black LSF-French interpreters feel discriminated against? I don’t. We should ask more of us and I am really looking forward to learning from testimonies that are similar to mine and that differ from mine.
Do black people have less chance to get access to university studies? I don’t know.  To the best of my knowledge, I have never read such studies on this topic.
Do black people have more risk of being discriminated against getting accommodation or a job? I think so. I have read many studies providing evidence of this discrimination. However, regarding the fact of being discriminated as a black interpreter in France against getting an interpreting assignment… I have never experienced nor noticed such a thing. 

So, my point is: of course we should strive for diversity. All kinds of diversity. But let’s take the time to focus on black people.

My question is: is the problem situated within the SL interpreting profession or at another level? Personally, I have never felt the need to fight for more equality for black SL interpreters in France, but for black people. Of course, black SL interpreters community is part of the society and not hermetic to his default. Let’s stand together regardless our ethnic background, let’s be ready to listen to all kind of testimonies from the people concerned, and let’s work this out together.

This is my testimony, this is my contribution. What’s yours?